Asia's Future: A Conversation with Maurice R. Greenberg

A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the giant portrait of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at the main entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing, October 28, 2013. Five people were killed and dozens injured on Monday, the government said, when a car ploughed into pedestrians and caught fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the site of 1989 pro-democracy protests bloodily suppressed by the military. The car crashed almost directly in front of the main entrance of the Forbidden City, where there h

“President Xi, if I had to make a wager, will be around for more than another five years.”

January-February 2018

The bottom line is this: you can’t have it all one way. There has to be a balance. Things change and periodically trade agreements have to be reviewed to make sure that you’re getting the results that you intended, and to check whether a change has taken place that requires some modification—that is always the case, so I don’t fault that. But the tone you adopt, how you say it and how you go about it, is very important. Mutual benefit, not a futile attempt to extract unilateral concessions and pocket the gains, is the key.

Heilbrunn: So are we ceding the ground globally, as some claim, to China?

Greenberg: I think we are conceding a great deal of it. Appearances are very important.

Heilbrunn: There was an article today by former national security advisor Susan Rice in the New York Times saying that Trump is inadvertently making China great again.

Greenberg: That is exactly right. And you know, the Party Congress did a great deal for President Xi. He is the unquestioned leader now, at the status level virtually of Mao Zedong. He has a second term for five years, but nobody on the Standing Committee of seven is being prepared to be the president—they will fall for the age limit. So the likelihood is that President Xi, if I had to make a wager, if he stays in good health, will be around for more than another five years.

Heilbrunn: What about the prognosis for Russia? There’s Putin, and then what happens next?

Greenberg: Well, he will be around until he dies. He is not a president, he is an authoritarian.

Heilbrunn: How did Russia end up going down this road?

Greenberg: The Chinese as well are looking at that, at what happened to Russia—or the Soviet Union after 1989 when it ended up collapsing—and they don’t want to make the same mistake of promoting policies that lead to internal dissolution. So in that sense, Russia, from the Chinese viewpoint, is an example of what not to do.

Heilbrunn: Tensions are mounting in another region: the Middle East. How do you view the region’s future?

Greenberg: If Lebanon goes down, Iran is the winner. If Saudi Arabia then becomes in danger, we will probably be there to help them. Russia has been on the side of Iran; we’ve got to neutralize the Iranians.

Heilbrunn: Do you foresee another war in the Middle East?

Greenberg: It can happen—and we would be involved.

Heilbrunn: How likely is it that Trump would reach some kind of an accommodation with Moscow?

Greenberg: I would say this: a world where the U.S. and China are allies is a much safer world than if China and Russia are allies. That would be a concern. So we have to keep that from occurring. We have to try and neutralize Russia, not give in to them, but on the other hand, not treat them like they are a third-rate country.

Heilbrunn: So you prefer a kind of Asia-first foreign policy: join up as far as possible with China to promote world stability.

Greenberg: Yes, but we have to have a good relationship with India at the same time. China is going to resist that.

Heilbrunn: Do you think India’s in fact more likely to do well than China in the coming decades? There’s a lot of speculation there as well.

Greenberg: It will take more than a decade. They’ve got some real serious problems. Even Apple is having some trouble in India; Amazon wants to deal there; there are some smart people, but you look at the people, and how many are doing well and how many are not. They have a long way to go. The climate is getting worse, not better; education is lagging.

Heilbrunn: So you would put your chips on China, as it were.

Greenberg: Absolutely. Change in China is startling. Even in technology, the way things are going, they’ll be the first nation to have electric cars in numbers.

Heilbrunn: When you look at the state of America right now, where the political system, even with Republican majorities, has essentially ground to a halt, are you feeling less optimistic about America’s future, or do you think we’re going to emerge from this in good shape?

Greenberg: All during history, there have been rising powers and declining powers. You had the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the French Empire and the British Empire; what happened? They reach a certain point, and their population changes—the mix of the population, the development of the population—a country that is united becomes splintered and becomes a declining power. What is happening here? During my lifetime, I’ve never seen the country so divided. Two totally different countries. We are declining until we get that turned around.

And China—in everything I’ve seen and read, I’ve never seen a nation develop so rapidly. A country with a billion, four hundred million people with a history that goes back many hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years was static—look what is happening, in a relatively brief time. Since I first went to China, it’s like a different country today. That is a reality.

Heilbrunn: What is your assessment of Trump as president?